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Williams 'shocked,' but FA class not bad

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams apparently is as shocked as many of the team's followers over what has happened to the defending NFL South champions in free agency.

By that I mean the decision to release Carolina's all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and let the next three wide receivers sign elsewhere.

Here's what he said Thursday on the NFL Network's NFL.AM.

"That was tough, man," Williams said. "I played with Steve for eight years, and I know the chip he has on his shoulder. And he's a playmaker. I couldn't believe that we made those moves.

"Like, I'm still in shock. Not only did we lose him, but Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon LaFell and [Domenik] Hixon."

Asked if losing the receivers put more pressure on him and the rest of the backs, Williams responded, "No, it puts more pressure on our front office because you make these moves, getting rid of four receivers, you've got to bring in guys."

Williams' questions about general manager Dave Gettleman's moves are legitimate. But when you look at the overall picture of what the Panthers have done, it's not as bad as it looked a month ago.

Even a week ago.

The additions this week of Philadelphia free-agent receiver Jason Avant, Baltimore tight end Ed Dickson and Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud were enough for me to raise my early free-agency grade from a D to a C.

None of the nine players signed will blow you away. But if you remember, none of the players signed a year ago blew you away and look at how that turned out.

You also can't overlook a few things:

  • Carolina put the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy to keep him. That took up $13.1 million of the team's cap space, but it was an important and necessary move.

  • The Panthers remain strapped under the salary cap due to a league-high $19,965,241 in dead money.

  • The team has $13,935,000 committed to running backs Williams ($6 million), Jonathan Stewart ($4,585,000) and Mike Tolbert ($3,350,000) from contracts given by previous management that has the team cap strapped.

  • The retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross made things seem worse because that created another high-profile position to fill.

Gettleman said before free agency began that there would be tough decisions to make. With 21 free agents, the Panthers were bound to lose a lot of players from last year's 12-4 team. Only a few played big roles and were expendable.

The Panthers GM also said he was looking to get the cap healthy, which probably meant some one-year deals for the league minimum -- or close to it. Four of the nine players signed got one-year deals. The other five got two-year deals, and all were structured to be cap friendly in the future.

The eight players signed before DeCoud on Thursday night will count only $7,825,625 under the 2014 cap. DeCoud's two-year deal that could reach $3.75 million will up the amount to closer to $9 million.

But Smith alone was going to count $7 million.

The Panthers also filled needs. They replaced safety Mike Mitchell, who had done little until this past season, with two-time Pro Bowler Roman Harper. DeCoud gives them insurance if Charles Godfrey isn't fully recovered from an Achilles injury, or if they decide to part with his $7.1 cap hit.

Carolina replaced four receivers who averaged just under 10 catches combined a game in 2013 with three -- Jerricho Cotchery, Avant and Tiquan Underwood -- who averaged 7.25 combined.

The Panthers also added Dickson, who will afford them the opportunity to run two tight end sets with Greg Olsen like the one quarterback Cam Newton had in 2011.

Newton threw for a career-best 4,051 yards that season. He had only 3,379 this past season.

Will there be adjustments? Yes. But there were adjustments last season as well.

Williams expressed a concern that Newton, who underwent ankle surgery last month, won't be able to work with his new receivers until training camp. He said he didn't want to see nine defensive players in the box "week in and week out because we're working on our timing."

But Newton would have been working on his timing had Carolina brought in DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks and Eric Decker. He's heading into his fourth season. He'll adjust.

So while Williams is concerned -- or even shocked -- it's not as doom and gloom as it appeared a few weeks ago.

It's not an A class or a sexy class. But it's not an F, and more needs will be filled in the draft.

Here's a complete look at Carolina's free-agency moves:

Jerricho Cotchery, wide receiver

Contract: Two-year deal worth $5 million, including a $2.25 million signing bonus

2014 salary cap: $1,700,000

Comment: He's not a No. 1 receiver, but he's dependable and will bring good leadership to the receiving unit. And he caught 10 touchdowns a year ago.

Roman Harper, safety

Contract: Two-year deal worth $4.5 million with $1.5 million signing bonus

2014 salary cap: $1,440,625

Comment: He was a salary-cap casualty, not washed up. Saints coach Sean Payton said at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando that the two-time Pro Bowl selection has a few more good years left in him. That's all Carolina wants.

Thomas DeCoud, safety

Contract: Two-year deal worth up to $3.75 million with a $500,000 signing bonus.

2014 salary cap: Not known at time of publication.

Comment: Not only does he give the Panthers a player with experience in the NFC South, he gives them the luxury -- as said above -- to release Godfrey and free up $5.1 million of his $7.1 salary cap hit with a June 1 designation.

Jason Avant, wide receiver

Contract: One-year deal worth $1,050,000

2014 salary cap: $1,050,000

Comment: You lose Brandon LaFell, you gain Avant. There's really not a big difference. And Avant may drop fewer passes.

Tiquan Underwood, wide receiver

Contract: Two-year deal worth $2.1 million

2014 salary cap: $925,000

Comment: You really think Ted Ginn Jr., was better? Ginn went from two catches in 2012 for San Francisco to 36 last season for Carolina. Underwood is ahead of the game. He had 24 last season for lowly Tampa Bay.

Ed Dickson, tight end

Contract: One-year deal, worth $730,000

2014 salary cap: $730,000

Comment: If the Panthers get 30 to 50 catches out of him they've got a steal. He had 25 last season for struggling Baltimore. He had 54 in 2011.

Mike McNeil, tight end

Contract: Two-year deal

2014 salary cap: $710,000

Comment: A solid blocker who fills a need.

Antoine Cason, cornerback

Contract: One-year deal worth $635,000

2014 salary cap: $635,000

Comment: An upgrade in height (6-0) from Captain Munnerlyn (5-8). Played well at San Diego before going to Arizona last season and getting lost in the shuffle. Knows the system and will have one of the league's top front sevens as a cushion.

Joe Webb, quarterback

Contract: One-year deal worth $635,000

2014 salary cap: $635,000

Comment: An athletic quarterback who can give the offense more Cam Newton-like looks while Newton recovers from ankle surgery.